Todd Rundgren – the Golden Period vs. Stevie Wonder
While Stevie Wonder gathered justified acclaim and fame for his “golden period” collection of LPs from 1971 to 1976 (“Music Of My Mind”, “Talking Book”, “Innervisions”, “Fulfilingness’ First Finale” and “Songs In The Key Of Life”), a fellow American working a few hundred miles away, primarily in a loft studio in New York, went through his own “golden period” that was far more prolific, and in some ways far more varied.
Todd Rundgren, born in Philadelphia in 1948, had a minor hit with his first band The Nazz (a BritPop-influenced band), then, after The Nazz imploded, he hid himself away and worked on honing his skills on guitar, piano and other instruments. He made an early solo LP in 1970, “Runt”, which yielded a minor radio hit in “We Gotta Get You A Woman” then another solo LP, “Runt – The Ballad of Todd Rundgren” in 1971. Along the way, he acquired a manager, Albert Grossman, who also happened to own his own record company, Bearsville Records. So Todd became one of a small number of artists on Bearsville, most of them managed by Grossman. This represented a huge advantage; when you manager owned your record company, the company was unlikely to reject your recordings. This would come in useful, as we shall see later.
In 1972 Rundgren, initially working on his own and later with a studio band, released a double LP, “Something/Anything?”. This comprised 4 sides of wide-ranging music, showing influences from British pop, soul music,music hall and rock. Todd played all of the instruments on many of the tunes. The LP yielded two US hit singles, “I Saw The Light”, and “Hello It’s Me”, but the album had several other potential hit singles on it. As a hint to what was about to happen, the LP clocked in at 90 minutes – very long even for a double LP.
Todd Rundgren had come of age as a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who acted as his own recording engineer and producer. He seemed to be able to write and play anything he could think of. He was now working with a small collection of New York musicians at the time; Mark “Moogy” Klingman, Ralph Shuckett, John Siegler, Hunt and Tony Sales, John Siomos, and Kevin Ellman.
By this time Todd had started a parallel career as a record producer. He produced the debut LP by the New York Dolls, and Grossman boasted that he was going to make him the highest-paid producer in the world. In 1974 Rundgren would produce the second LP from Daryl Hall and Joan Oates, “War Babies”. The production monies would soon become useful…
In late 1973, mostly recording in his loft studio (which bore the name Secret Sound), Todd’s next LP, “A Wizard a True Star” appeared. It was a single LP, but was an incredible 56 minutes in length, and in practical terms equated to a commercial disaster after “Something/Anything?”. There were no obvious hit singles on the album, some of the tunes were only 90 seconds long, and half of the second side was a medley of Todd’s cover versions of his favorite soul songs. Many of the songs ran into each other with no gaps. The overall effect was musically interesting, but the record company executives probably ended up banging their heads on the table.
Rundgren kept his head down and carried on working at a ludicrous pace in Secret Sound. His next LP, “Todd”, appeared in early 1974. It was a double LP this time, once again full of songs showing a wide range of influences, including Todd’s cover version of a Gilbert and Sullivan song (“The Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song”). However, Todd was still making it as difficult as possible for the record company and DJs to play his music – many of the tunes again ran into each other, and there was no obvious hit single, although the LP was stuffed full of great songs, especially the ballads “The Last Ride” and “Don’t You Ever Learn”.
By this time, Todd’s collaboration roster had settled on Kevin Ellman (drums), John Siegler (bass), Moogy Klingman and Ralph Shuckett on keyboards, and Jean-Yves (M. Frog) Labat on synthesizers. The band soon became known as Utopia, and began to back Todd in live concerts.
The Utopia band was no ordinary looking or sounding band. Klingman and Shuckett’s keyboards comprised electric pianos, clavinets, and a new instrument, the RMI keyboard computer, which was, for a while, the first truly polyphonic synthesizer, beating the better-known polysynths from Moog, Oberheim and Sequential Circuits by several years.
The combination of the different keyboards, heavily treated using effects, and the space-age garb of the band members, with Rundgren himself up front with multi-colored dyed hair, made Utopia look more like Sun Ra than an early 1970s rock band, and the sound was different – clear and crystalline, almost other-worldly.
Todd had now branched out to have two parallel recording careers in two distinctively different musical zones, in addition to his “producer for hire” side gig.
In late 1974, a new LP appeared under the title of “Todd Rundgren’s Utopia”. The single LP was another CD-length musical package of 59 minutes of music. There was just one tune on Side 1 that could have been a hit single (but wasn’t) named “Freedom Fighters”; the rest of the tunes on Side 1 were all at least 10 minutes in length, with the single track of side 2, “The Ikon”, running for 30 minutes. If the record company hadn’t already realized that Todd didn’t care about whether he had a hit single ever again, that LP should have confirmed it.
The Utopia music was complex thematic rock, but rooted in pop, not jazz like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a band that was attracting a lot of attention at the time for its fusion of jazz and rock approaches. The Utopia book of tunes was dominated by multi-section long form tunes, with occasional melodic vocal sections from Rundgren.
Rundgren was also beginning to tackle big subjects in his lyrics as he moved heavily into ingesting psychedelic drugs. He began reading occult and sci-fi works.
After a few months, Jean-Yves Labat left Utopia, and was replaced by Roger Powell, a synthesizer pioneer who had left ARP and become a Moog expert. Powell, who also occasionally played trumpet, and his large bank of Moog synth equipment soon became an integral part of the band’s live presence.
At the same tine, Todd went back into the studio and in 1975 yet another Todd Rundgren LP emerged. “Initiation” was another single LP.
No it wasn’t.
At 68 minutes in length, “Initiation” was totally unique at the time – a CD length musical work in the vinyl age. The first side, nearly 33 minutes long, comprised Rundgren in a band setting. The entire second side of the LP comprised a single 35 minute long tune, “A Treatise On Cosmic Fire”, the title being taken from the 1930s occult book by Alice Bailey. Rundgren played almost all of the instruments on side 2 himself, with considerable help on synthesizer programming from Roger Powell.
The LP was so long that in order to be able to master the LP for vinyl, Rundgren had to speed the master tape for the second side up by 5%. Mastering the LP required the bass levels on the music to be reduced almost to transistor radio levels. The LP always sounded terrible in analog on vinyl, it was not until it was re-mastered to CD in the late 1980s that we finally got to hear it how it sounded when it was recorded.
The title track was a “kitchen sink” production, with no expense spared. The band for the recording session comprised Bernard Purdie and Rick Marotta on drums, John Siegler on bass, Todd himself on keyboards, Lee Pastora on percussion, and David Sanborn playing a heavily flanged and treated sax solo. Roger Powell made an appearance for a synth solo. Todd sings around material and ideas also found in Alice Bailey’s books, tossing off guitar solos and layered vocals left right and center. The result is a supercharged pop band playing space music. Nothing like it had been recorded before, and it still sounds astoundingly different over 40 years later.
Rundgren continued to write and record new material, and play it in a live setting. In mid-1975, his Utopia band concert in New York was recorded, and the LP “Utopia- Another Live” duly appeared in late 1975.
Live albums are usually a variant of a “greatest hits” collection played live. Not so with the “Utopia – Another Live” LP. It comprised an eclectic collection of material. The first side was all new tunes – three long-form compositions (“Another Life”, “The Wheel”, and “The Seven Rays”, the last named song exploring a concept from Alice Bailey’s occult writings). The second side opened with an instrumental composition (“Mr. Triscuits”, written by Roger Powell) which segued into a cover of “Something’s Coming” from “West Side Story”. The rest of the side comprised previously released Rundgren tunes (“Heavy Metal Kids” and “Just One Victory”), and a cover of the Move song “Do Ya”. And…if you hadn’t guessed by now, not a sniff of a hit single on the LP, which therefore failed to get above #66 on the LP charts.
The expense of running a 6-piece live band comprising session musicians and one of the world’s synthesizer pioneers, and the constant and frequent release of LPs that, no matter how good, were difficult to explain and market, and contained no hit singles, soon led to a rationalization. At the end of 1975, Ralph Schuckett and Moogy Klingman left Utopia. Roger Powell took over as the sole keyboards player, and the slimmed-down four-piece Utopia continued as Todd’s primary project, although he continued to release solo LPs frequently.
“Utopia – Live” marked the end of the breakneck period of music creation. In just under 4 years, Rundgren had released 6 LPs, but given that 2 of them were doubles, and at least 2 others were effectively double LPs squeezed into a single LP format, he actually released 10+ LPs’ worth of music. That is more than double Stevie Wonder’s recorded output over the same period. Todd’s output was more uneven, but the highs were every bit as high as Wonder’s. They just did not get the same attention in the music world.